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Early Voting Bill Could Help Put an End to Low Turnout for New Jersey's Elections

Democratic lawmakers have drafted early-voting legislation, but can it make it past the Christie veto?

nia gill
Credit: Amanda Brown
State Sen. Nia Gill (D-34th)

The primaries are over -- a single day with extremely low voter turnout that -- thanks to political gerrymandering -- will almost certainly determine who represents New Jersey in Congress for the next two years.

But it doesn’t have to be that way come November. A group of bills is being considered in the Legislature that would add New Jersey to list of 33 states and the District of Columbia that have implemented early voting.

Early voting allows citizens to cast ballots in the days or weeks leading up to an election. The Legislature approved such a bill in the last session, but it was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, who cited the additional cost as the chief strike against it.

The Democrats, however, are trying again. With S-536/A2230, sponsored by Senators Nia Gill (D-34th) and Jim Whelan (D-2nd), along with Assembly members John Wisniewski (D-19th), Joseph Lagana (D-38th), Benjie Wimberly (D-35th), and Patrick Diegnan (D-18th), Democrats say they are attempting to address Christie's concerns while still establishing a robust early voting system.

For one thing, the new bill reduces the number of days and the hours that early polling places would be open, which would reduce the price.

Specifically, the bills require municipalities to operate at least three early voting locations beginning 15 days before Election/Primary Day. Districts with larger populations are required to have more polling places, with a maximum of seven. These polls must be located where they will be most convenient for people planning to vote and must be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Early voting would end the second calendar day before the election.

Last session, the bill passed both the Senate and Assembly along strict party lines with the Democrats in favor, only to be vetoed by Christie. There is an expectation among some that this will happen again.

“This bill will make it through the Legislature; it’s up to the governor whether he thinks it’s important enough to give voters greater access to the ballot box,” said Wisnewski.

Other Democrats agreed. “We want to make it as convenient as possible for people to vote, and the fact is the first Tuesday in November is no longer Market Day,” said Whelan In addition, supporters of these bills hope early voting will allow New Jersey to avoid problems associated with extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy.

As Assemblyman Lagana stated, “I think by allowing early voting we are getting ahead of things that can happen like we saw with Hurricane Sandy. In that instance, having early voting would have made it a lot easier for counties, municipalities, and people.”

But Republicans cite cost as an issue. Christie put it at $25 million in his veto, and even some Democrats are cautious about cost. Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-34), a primary sponsor of last session’s Assembly bill, said “I do support the concept, but of course the challenge is the cost.”

Diegnan referred to the cost issue as “a straw horse.”

“Last year we had a special election that cost the state $26 million Clearly we can find the money.”

Assemblyman Wade DeAngelo (D-14), a cosponsor of last session’s bill, shared these sentiments, stating, “Everyone says cost is the issue, but we still have municipalities that have nonpartisan May elections. People are just apprehensive to change.”

Republicans argue that the state already has early voting mechanisms. Vote by Mail and In Person Absentee Voting, which allows voters to both receive and submit an absentee ballot in one trip to the county clerk’s office. “Vote by Mail has proven to be effective and reliable with minimal cost borne by the State,” said Christie

Democrats dismiss the idea that Vote by Mail and In Person Absentee Voting perform the same functions as early voting. These methods do not allow voters to cast their ballots locally, which is an inconvenience, Democrats said.

Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-34), who cosponsored last session’s bill and has used In Person Absentee Voting, said that when he voted this way, “I had the ability to go down to the Hall of Records. Some people won’t have the flexibility.”

Jake McNichol is an editorial intern at NJ Spotlight.

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